The Importance of SEO for Nonprofits

If you’re here, you’re probably wondering whether or not SEO (search engine optimization) can help your nonprofit to broaden its reach and bring in more donations. With a too-tight marketing budget stretched across lots of different channels, why should you invest in SEO?

I’ve worked in a few marketing channels besides SEO, but when I founded my own consultancy to help nonprofits I knew I had to do it with SEO. Why? Because SEO works.

Here’s part of why SEO is important for your nonprofit:

– Google reports a staggering 63,000 search queries per second

– A majority of all online traffic (53.3%) comes from organic

– In a survey, 49% of marketers say SEO has the highest ROI of any marketing channel

– SEO spend keeps rising year after year because organizations are seeing the value

I’ll go more into the importance of SEO for nonprofits, and even some SEO strategies your nonprofit can use to grow reach and bring in more donations; but first let’s take a step back.

What is SEO?

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It is the art and science of helping websites rank higher on search engines (primarily Google, but also Yahoo and Bing and YouTube and others). When a user searches for something you offer (for example, “sponsor a child in Africa” or “spiritual training program”), SEO can help you show up on page 1 of those search engines and get in front of users right when they’re searching for you.

World Vision, which ranks #1 for this keyword below all the ads, is definitely doing SEO.

SEO is broadly composed of three parts:

– On-page SEO

– Off-page SEO

– Technical SEO

Let’s go through them:

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO is probably the most important SEO element. It’s what’s on your website. In the old days it was all about keyword stuffing, and ten years ago organizations could rank for “sponsor a child in Africa” by just using those exact words dozens or even hundreds of times on the page. This made users’ eyes bleed, and thankfully Google has gotten more sophisticated since then.

Keyword usage still matters, which is why the first part of any SEO campaign is generally in-depth keyword research to identify the keywords that are relevant to your brand and what your nonprofit does. Once you identify a keyword you want XYZ page to rank for, it’s important to use that keyword on the page.

On-page SEO also involves elements like the quality of content (high-quality content ranks better), internal linking between pages, and even the user experience. Pages with excellent images and an engaging user experience tend to outrank pages that just look like a wall of text. Google cares about pleasing users, which means on-page SEO is about pleasing users too.

This page from bariatric-surgery-source.com has an excellent user experience.

On-Page SEO Tips for Nonprofits

On-page SEO is about writing engaging content, and nonprofits have a natural leg up on that front. You can write about:

– The people or animals you’re helping

– The problem you’re trying to fix

This is a great opportunity to talk about the size of the problem you’re focused on, and how bad it is. In copywriting we call this twisting the knife, but you can also think of it as lighting a fire under your target market.

For instance, if you’re a nonprofit that focuses on ending sex trafficking (like the Tim Tebow Foundation), you could write a blog on “Sex trafficking statistics.” In the blog, you could shine a light on the problem and also talk about the work your nonprofit is doing to help.

– Work you’re doing to help fix the problem

– Ways to get involved

For instance, if your nonprofit sponsors children in Africa, there are a lot of people who want to sponsor children and get involved. SEO optimizing a page for keywords like “sponsor a child in Africa” could help you get in front of your target market right when they want to get involved.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is link-building, and it’s a second important piece of the SEO puzzle. The earliest search engines ranked websites manually; Google’s big innovation was that they used links to rank sites, because a link to your website was seen as a vote for a website.

It’s not quite that simple anymore; not all links are created equal, and some links can actually hurt your website. Some bad actors use negative SEO, which is essentially pointing spammy links to a site they want to hurt.

But links from reputable, trustworthy websites can carry a lot of SEO juice. Google likes to use “virtue by association,” so if a trustworthy site (like nytimes.com) links to you, that tells Google that you’re trustworthy too and should rank higher for the keywords you’re targeting.

Off-Page SEO Tips for Nonprofits

– Get links from your partners. 

If you’ve partnered with another nonprofit or a corporation for a big initiative, ask for a link from their website to yours!

– Leverage PR

Nonprofits like the Prison Policy Initiative do this very well. They produce excellent research for journalists to use, and their Contact page also makes it clear that they’re eager to talk to journalists and be a source.

They’re setting themselves up for PR success, which can also create off-page SEO success

You already know that working with journalists can be an excellent way to get the word out about the great work that your organization is doing. But it can also be a great way to earn links from quality sites like USA Today or The New York Times, which can be a big signal for Google to rank your site higher.

– Turn brand mentions into links

Lots of people are probably talking about your nonprofit online, but a lot of them might be doing that without linking to you. When you identify a list of webpages that mention your organization but don’t link to you, you can reach out to them and ask for a link. Lots of webmasters will be more than happy to help, turning this into a powerful source of prospective links.

Here’s a blog that lays out how to do this in detail (with screenshots!)

Technical SEO

Chances are dev resources are a little tight at your nonprofit. With that in mind, the main thing with technical SEO is to focus on high priority issues (for example page speed, core web vitals). You don’t want to be spending money fixing pages with multiple H1 tags or links without anchor text when you have bigger issues to deal with.

This is where it’s helpful to work with an experienced SEO consultant who can tell you what’s important vs what’s not important. Most technical SEO crawl tools will say that everything’s important, but the fact is that some technical SEO changes need to be made, some are nice-to-haves, and some frankly aren’t worth your developer’s time.

As an SEO consultant for nonprofits, I focus on high priority technical SEO items because I’m used to working with organizations that don’t have unlimited development resources. If we work together, you can rest assured that I’ll prioritize every technical SEO recommendation I make so that you know what’s worth fixing and what isn’t.

Now that you have a broad overview of SEO, let’s dive into the heart of the matter: the importance of SEO. Why is SEO important for nonprofits?

The Importance of SEO For Nonprofits

Why does SEO matter for nonprofits? Here are 12 key reasons SEO is important.

Reason #1 SEO Is Important: Rankings Drive Traffic

Like I said, Google is an incredible source of high-quality traffic. There are 5.6 billion search queries per day in Google, and organic traffic accounts for over half of all internet traffic.

Getting this traffic is a highly competitive process. 88% of users click on results on page 1 of the SERP (search engine results page). 28.5% of Google users click on the first result, compared to only 2.5% who click on the 10th result.

Ranking at the top of page 1 is infinitely more valuable than ranking at the bottom of page 1 or page 2. 

Reason #2 SEO Is Important: Rankings Boost Credibility

Users naturally trust sites that they’ve seen in Google. Google is such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s almost a credibility marker: if your target market sees you on page 1 of Google, it’s like Google is endorsing you.

If you can rank in the top 3 positions in Google for a certain keyword, the people who see you there will instinctively understand that you’re credible. That can build trust, making them more willing to engage with your content and get involved down the line.

Reason #3 SEO Is Important: SEO Gets You In Front Of Your Target Market Right When They’re Looking For You

SEO is a permission marketing channel. You’re not pushing your brand in front of your audience; you’re letting them come to you.

Let’s say that your nonprofit sponsors children in Haiti. When someone Googles “sponsor children in Haiti,” you can be sure of two things. One: they’re part of your target market. Two: in that moment, they are interested in and looking for what you offer. If you can use SEO to get in front of them in that moment, there’s a good chance you can turn an interested user into a donor or volunteer.

I love permission marketing because it’s highly respectful to your target market. You’re not pushing your message into their lives, you’re just giving them exactly what they want when they want it.

Reason #4 SEO Is Important: SEO Supports Other Marketing Channels

Your other marketing channels (PR, social media, etc) generate demand and buzz for who your nonprofit is and the problem that you solve. That buzz often manifests as search queries. If your brand is there in Google to capture those search queries, you can build a relationship with those users and turn the buzz into deeper impact. If your brand isn’t there, the buzz will fizzle.

Reason #5 SEO Is Important: Awareness/Interest Content Makes People Aware Of the Problem

Nonprofit marketing funnel from Wired Impact

Blogging about the problem you’re working to solve is a great way to raise awareness. You can help people see the scope of the problem right when they’re most interested in it, which can light a fire under your target market. If you do marketing for a nonprofit that focuses on addressing poverty in Africa, for instance, an SEO-optimized blog around “Poor kids in Africa” that weaves together human stories and broader statistics to describe the problem could be powerful. More importantly, it can motivate your target market to take action.

Reason #6 SEO Is Important: Involvement Content Highlights What You’re Doing

A little deeper in the content marketing funnel, you can talk about the work you’re doing to solve XYZ problem. SEO can help you get that content into the hands of people who are interested in solving the problem and who want to learn about it now.

This is something the Malala Fund does exceptionally well. They SEO optimize a page around “Girls’ education in Pakistan” (people looking to understand the problem). Then they discuss the problem and segue into the work they’re doing and how the user can help. Before you know it, the user’s donated.

Problem and solution

Reason #7 SEO Is Important: Investment Content Can Have a High ROI

SEO-optimized bottom-of-funnel content can have a high ROI, because you’re getting in front of people who want to take action. You’re capturing people the very moment they want to help solve a problem that your nonprofit was created to solve.

For instance, if your nonprofit sponsors children, a page SEO-optimized for “sponsor a child” can generate a lot of Google traffic from users who want to donate money to a child right this moment. That can generate a huge ROI.

Reason #8 SEO Is Important: SEO Helps You Stay In Touch Throughout the Donor’s Journey

The average journey from interest to payment takes 7-13 touchpoints. SEO optimizing your site helps you provide these touchpoints when and where your audience wants them.

Is your target market doing research? You’re there. Is your target market debating which problems in the world to donate to? You’re there. Does your target market know they want to donate money to (or volunteer with) an organization focused on giving stuffed animals to endangered koalas, and they’re just choosing which organization to get involved with? You’re there. (Though I do question if giving koalas stuffed animals is the best thing they could be doing with their money….).

Reason #9 SEO Is Important: SEO Generates a High ROI

When Search Engine Journal polled thousands of Internet marketers about which marketing channel had the highest ROI, a plurality (49%) said SEO. The second highest channel (paid search) was a distant second, with only 19% saying that it had the highest ROI.

There’s a reason that SEO spend keeps rising year after year. Marketers and organizations keep investing because it works.

Reason #10 SEO Is Important: SEO Gains Compound Over Time

A good SEO consultant should be able to grow your organic traffic 5-10% per month on average, assuming that you follow their recommendations. But SEO cost stays flat. That means that the ROI of SEO will start low but then rise over time, just like any other compound interest investing.

Here’s what that exponential ROI looks like:

The difference between the orange line and the blue line represents the value of SEO. It starts low, but rises rapidly and powerfully.

By contrast, here’s the linear cost of SEO:

Reason #11 SEO Is Important: SEO Requires Focusing On the User Experience

It’s not enough to get users to your site. If you’re going to entice them to volunteer with you, donate, or otherwise get involved, you need to show them a great user experience on-site.

This is where SEO is essential, because ranking for valuable keywords requires giving users a great experience. Google cares about satisfying users, so it encourages you to as well. By doing your SEO right, you’ll be automatically improving your user experience and satisfying your target market.

One note: make sure to focus on Core Web Vitals.

Reason #12 SEO Is Important: SEO Generates High-Quality Traffic

SEO typically generates higher-quality traffic than other channels because it’s not interruptive, it’s permission-based. You’re talking to your target market when they want to hear from you. Because you’re showing your target market respect and capturing their attention when they’re most interested, users who come in from SEO are more likely to:

– Engage with your content

– Subscribe

– Get involved

– Donate to your cause

Should I DIY My SEO Or Hire An SEO Consultant?

Okay, you get it. My glorious data and arguments have sold you on the importance of SEO for your nonprofit. Now you’re probably wondering: should I do it myself, or hire someone?

If you want to DIY your SEO, you can probably handle the basics if you have a broad marketing background. Do your keyword research, let that inform your content calendar, and start writing SEO-optimized content. Focus on page speed and an excellent user experience.

If you want to handle SEO yourself, here are some of my favorite resources:

Moz’ Beginner’s Guide to SEO

Backlinko’s Guide to How to Create an Effective SEO Strategy In 2021

Google’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide

Neil Patel’s What Is SEO [Learn How to Do It in 5 Minutes]

That said, SEO is complex and difficult to master. There’s incredible potential, but you can also end up spinning your wheels for months testing different strategies.

If you’d like to leverage this incredible channel and take your SEO to the next level, I have 6 years of SEO experience and I specialize in working with nonprofits. I’d be delighted to talk.

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